Be it a horror movie or an MR James classic, there is something strangely appealing about scaring yourself silly with a good old-fashioned ghost story. But we are so familiar with the conventions of what makes a spooky tale that it’s easy to forget ghosts haven’t always been represented as they are now. In fact, the medieval conventions of what constituted a ghost story can seem quite odd to a modern reader, as can the apparitions that haunt them. Here are some examples of creepy tales that enthralled readers in England more than 600 years ago…
The Haunting of Frodriver
First recorded in the 13th century as part of the Eyrbyggja Saga, and translated by Sir Walter Scott in 1814 in Illustrations of Northern Antiquities
The story begins as a Hebridian woman named Thorgunna arrives in Iceland one winter. A local woman named Thuirda notices the rich treasures that Thorgunna possesses, and presses her to come and stay with her at her home in Froda.
Thorgunna refuses to part with any of her precious things, but agrees to stay and work as a servant. Soon Thorgunna falls ill and dies, but leaves behind a warning: her bedding is to be burnt, and most of her effects given to local monks. This, she says, is not out of spite, but as a way to protect the settlement from an evil that is coming.
Inevitably, Thurida can’t resist taking the rich bedding of Thorgunna for herself, and sure enough the residents of Froda begin to fall victim to a series of grisly accidents, ghostly attacks, and mysterious plagues. After a funeral feast is held, they are beset by a crowd of walking ghouls that refuse to leave, and which gather around the central fire of the main hall each night.
But deliverance soon arrives when Kiartan, the son of Thurida, engages a local priest to stage a trial. The ghouls are charged with staying unlawfully in the hall, and eventually their leader declares, somewhat petulantly: “We have here no longer a peaceful dwelling, therefore will we remove.”
From The Dialogi of Gregory the Great, published in the mid-10th century. Translated by EG Gardner in 1911, and published in Medieval Ghost Stories, by Andrew Joynes
A priest is visiting a hot spring when he comes across a man he hasn’t seen before. The man promptly begins to attend to him, helping him to take off his clothes and shoes, and the priest naturally assumes that he is one of the servants there.
The priest then visits the baths several more times, and each time the man appears to him and offers to help him, but doesn’t extract any form of payment. Eventually the priest decides that he should give the man a reward. He returns the next time with two Eucharist loaves, and offers them to the man with his gratitude.
When the man sees the loaves, he becomes distressed. He explains that he cannot eat holy bread, for he isn’t a living man at all, but an apparition of the former overseer of the baths. He entreats the priest to intercede on his behalf so that he might find peace in the afterlife, and when he finishes speaking he vanishes, so that the priest knows for certain he has seen a ghost.
The priest offers up prayers, and sure enough the ghostly attendant never returns to him.
Byland Abbey Ghost Stories
From fragments in a late 14th-century manuscript, transcribed by MR James in 1920 in Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories
There are many ghost stories recorded by the Monk of Byland. One such tale features a man trying to make his way home with a load of beans after his horse meets with an accident. He sees a terrifying apparition of a horse, and after he tries to scare it away it begins to stalk him. The spirit then appears as a glowing ball of light in a cloud of hay.
Finally the man confronts the spirit in the name of the lord, and a ghostly figure appears in front of him. The spirit claims that it means the man no harm, and asks to carry his load of beans for him. The man agrees, and the load is carried across a river, before reappearing on his back. After this, the spirit vanishes.
In another local story, a spirit accosts two farm labourers, attacking one of them. The man calls on the lord, and the ghost confesses that it was the canon of Newburgh, excommunicated for theft. The labourer digs up a set of spoons stolen by the ghost, and afterwards its spirit rests in peace.
Medieval ghost stories, then, often fall into the category of exempla – cautionary tales intended to reinforce Christian values. But they can also show the exchange of cultures happening over a large expanse of time.
The events at Frodriver read like a mixture of a Christian exempla with more traditional Nordic notions of the undead, while the events described at Byland in Yorkshire feature the kind of aggressive, physical apparitions that Vikings were fond of describing.
MR James – perhaps the most influential modern writer of ghost stories – was also an important medieval scholar who rediscovered many of these stories. He revived features of medieval folklore in his tales, including ghosts that transform into objects, and dangers that lurk in everyday settings. So perhaps our own ghosts are closer to the medieval than we might think…
George Dobbs is a freelance writer who specialises in literature and history, and H Somerset is the author of Rat Abbey: Three Ghost Stories
This article was first published on HistoryExtra in October 2016